My attitude to preparing meals is very ‘pure’ in the sense that I never buy ready-made meals, I buy good quality – mostly organic – ingredients and keep things simple; an emphasis on cooking Italian style with just a very few ingredients. When I was a young thing with a young family, I used to spend literally days in the kitchen preparing fancy meals from scratch to entertain friends – never now! Well, I don’t entertain much these days but when I do I keep it simple. As a single person, I also like to take into account that I don’t want to be an exhausted wreck by the time guests arrive, and I want to spend time talking to them, not slaving in the kitchen. See my guide to entertaining on your own: click here.
My kids were served fish fingers when they were little and copious amounts of baked beans were ladled on to plates; I haven’t always been totally ‘pure’ in the kitchen. I remember buying M&S’s coronation chicken regularly to serve with salad and new potatoes as a meal in the summer. I kept the odd ready-meal in the freezer. There were always plenty of packs of filled pasta – ravioli, tortellini, etc. – in my freezer.
I work freelance and a few years ago, for a year or more, I was regularly employed to spend a day a week in a London publisher’s offices in Euston. I left the house at about 7am and returned at about 7pm. The minimum journey each way was 1hr 15mins. I took to putting a ready-made meal in the oven when I got in. It wasn’t great, but it was easy; I do know what it’s like to arrive home hungry and tired. I don’t own (nor do I wish to own) a microwave so the cooking took on average 40-50mins. Hell, I wanted to eat now!! I’ve since learnt that I can easily put together a basic pasta with vegetable dish – which is much more delicious and nutritious – in about 15-20 minutes!
I don’t mean to show off here; I’m not meaning to be a food snob but the change in my food habits has been organic from an early love of food and cooking, to cooking quick meals after work when first married, simple meals to feed a growing family in my 30s, to fancy meals for friends at a time in my life when that was the thing to do, and now cooking for just myself or family and wanting to eat well – but not spend hours in the kitchen!
My ‘quick fixes’ in the kitchen tend to be a bit luxurious or are simply things where I think it’s OTT to make myself – like puff pastry or filo pastry. I do make my own stock regularly and invariably have homemade stock cubes in the freezer; otherwise I use water or liquid from soaked dried mushrooms if appropriate – e.g. for a mushroom risotto. I like making my own ice cream but having recently discovered Grom in Waitrose, I can see I might not make my own as much as I’ve done in recent years.
So, let’s look at my most common ‘quick fixes’:
1. Grom Gelato
I recently wrote about Grom’s first gelateria in London and since then have discovered Waitrose (no other supermarket; or not yet) sell it. It’s just too tempting! It’s great gelato and how could any gelato-lover resist keeping some in their freezer – especially during this long summer heatwave. I currently have Pistachio (which is amazing and my favourite!), as well as chocolate and strawberry. Yes, it’s more expensive than most (£6.50 a pot) but it’s the best, and I don’t want to eat a half tub, I want just a scoop or two. And really, it’s so special, I wouldn’t hesitate to serve to family and friends.
2. Paul Patisserie
The French are confident enough of their cooking to not be embarrassed to buy a dessert from the local patisserie and it’s quite common for them to bring some gorgeous cake or tart with them as a gift. Thus I don’t feel the least embarrassed to buy dessert in my local Paul Bakery in Richmond. Patisserie making is an art and pastry chefs spend years perfecting the art. I can make a pretty good fruit tart, wonderful (if it is immodest to say it) dessert cakes like Torta Caprese and Rhubarb & Almond Cake, but sometimes I’m just happy to concentrate on preparing a nice main course and take the easy route and go to the experts for dessert. Thank goodness for Paul Bakery close by! I have a particular addiction to their macarons too and will find any excuse to buy a box to accompany a dessert – maybe with some homemade ice cream.
3. Merchant Gourmet Puy Lentils
Puy Lentils aren’t really that hard to cook. Unlike some lentils which require long soaking, Puy Lentils can be cooked straight away and don’t take long. However, when I discovered Merchant Gourmet’s vacuum packs of them ready to use, I couldn’t resist trying, and they’re a great standby in the kitchen cupboard. My Puy Lentils with Tomatoes, Red Onion, Herbs & Balsamic recipe from January 2012 is the 3rd most popular post of all time, with to date 9,261 views. You can roast all kinds of vegetables – aubergines, courgettes, carrots, peppers – anything you have in your fridge, and near the end of roasting tip in these lentils for a great tasty and nutritious supper.
4. Antipasti or Meze
I should confess that the photo above is of antipasti at Corto Italian Deli in Twickenham. But that’s where I go to buy cold meats for antipasti, which are sliced to order and are as fresh as fresh can be, and the best I can buy anywhere. I once tried to buy some the day before I needed the antipasti and they wouldn’t let me! ‘Come back tomorrow!’
I almost never make ‘starters’ now. I put starters together. They usually have an Italian antipasti theme or are a Middle Eastern meze selection. Though for a French meal I’ll buy saucisson and cornichons. I buy appropriate bread from one of the local artisan bakeries; a favourite is Paul Bakery’s olive fougasse. I buy cold meats. Depending on how ‘spontaneous’ the meal is I might buy ready-made hummus or similar ‘dips’ but often I’ll make those because a basic hummus or bean dip really doesn’t take long at all. And I like to sometimes make labneh the day before. Try mashing a ripe avocado with a fork, season and add a dash of Tabasco and lemon/lime juice for a quick ‘guacamole’. I always buy olives and would usually have some kind of vegetable, like a small bowl of cherry tomatoes or carrot or cucumber sticks. The quick fix is to have just 3 or 4 good quality things – which you can buy – and serve them nicely on attractive plates with some fantastic artisan bread.
5. Quick Pasta & Vegetables
I said above about how I finally realised I could put together a quick and delicious pasta dish from scratch in less than half the time a ready meal would cook in an oven. And because I love cooking, it’s also a great way for me to wind down and relax if it’s been a busy day. The recipe above – Orecchiette. Broccoli & Tomato – is typical of what I cook at least one night a week. Usually it’s even more simple than this recipe! Most of the pasta I buy takes about 13 minutes to cook. While the water is heating and I measure the pasta ready to go into the pan with some salt, I’ll start gently frying a sliced shallot in a pan. Then I’ll add some chopped tomato and let that cook down a little. To that I often add a few pine nuts – let them brown a little at the edge before mixing in – and depending on what ‘greenery’ I have, some spinach or tenderstem broccoli, but maybe just some frozen peas (another quick fix!). If there’s wine open, I’ll add a dash. I’ll add a little of the pasta water to swirl the sauce round. By the time it’s cooked and the vegetables are al dente tender, a small pool of gorgeous juices collecting at the bottom of the pan, the pasta will be ready. I’ll drain and mix all together well, transfer to a serving dish and grate over some Parmesan. Easy and incredibly quick – a great quick fix for a simple supper.
What are your favourite ‘quick fixes’ in the kitchen?